It's a Mini Adventure
Published at 1:20am on 11 May 2007
When Apple released the new line of Intel Minis a year ago I decided to take the plunge and buy one for use as a media centre or living room PC. In some ways it has surpassed my expectations, and in others I've been bitterly disappointed. Here is the good, bad and ugly of the Media Centre Mini...
Around a year ago, I bought a shiny new Intel Mac Mini with the express purpose of using it as media centre PC for the living room. Here's how it worked out.
A built-to-order Intel Core Duo Mini with a 120GB hard disk and 1GB of RAM.
A Toshiba WLT67 wide-screen LCD (32" HD).
As pretty as the apple Bluetooth mice and keyboard are, they aren't well-suited to living room use. I'm primarily a PowerBook user (That's a pre-Intel MacBook Pro to you young whippersnappers) so I'm quite comfortable using a trackpad, and I wanted an integrated trackpad and keyboard in a single Bluetooth unit.
It turns out that no such device exists. First off, nobody except Apple and a few Mac-centric companies like MacAlly make Bluetooth peripherals for computers at all. I assume there's a good reason for this that relates to the expense of Bluetooth or driver complexity, or the hassle of synching. In any case, all such wireless devices come with their own RF dongle. Not a deal breaker as the Mini has plenty of USB ports, but still not ideal.
The next problem is that almost nobody makes a wireless trackpad keyboard combo, and those that do exist mostly have issues with Mac compatibility.
I eventually went for the Adesso WKB-4000US. It's not exactly easy to get hold of - I had to buy it off Ebay from America (I live in the UK). It's a Windows keyboard, but fortunately the US Windows keyboard layout is quite similar to the UK Mac equivalent - you just have to put up with the Command key having a Windows symbol on it.
It's not a bad piece of kit - it's certainly not as ugly as it looks in the photos, it's light and comfortable to use, and it "just works" when you plug it in.
It is not without issues though. It sleeps when not in use, with the mouse only waking upon a key press. I use the Windows/Command key for this as it doesn't do anything unexpected to running software. This is a hassle though as Mac OS is a mouse-centric OS and I often just want to use the mouse on its own.
The trackpad is completely crap. It has tap-to-click functionality enabled by default, and there are no drivers I can use to change this. The OS registers it as a mouse, so there's no way to set it with the built-in trackpad options (not that it is likely that it would obey them if I could). This essentially makes it useless for playing games because sudden taps of movement of the form used to aim a gun sight or negotiate a corridor in Quake makes the gun go off, and if I'm not careful when negotiating the Finder, I find myself accidentally moving files and resizing windows and popping things in and out of the Dock left, right and centre.
It also has an annoying scroll area to the right hand side that seems to work semi-randomly, and has no tactile distinction from the rest of the pad so you'll tend to wander into it unexpectedly unless you keep your eyes on your finger.
I've actually found that it is often easier to use my PowerBook to control the cursor via Apple Remote Desktop than to do it directly with the wireless keyboard.
The TV Tuner
I bought the Miglia TV Mini because it was small and cool looking. This is a digital TV tuner, and behaves much like a Freeview box (AKA digibox or digital set-top box). Hardware seems good but for some caveats:
The aerial that comes with it is completely useless - throw it away. The RF lead adaptor works but seems very flimsy and I'm constantly afraid I'll break it when I unplug the cable - which I have to do frequently because the box randomly loses signal and must be detached and then re-attached.
The infrared remote that comes with it must have a direct line of sight to the Miglia dongle. This is a real hassle as it means I can't just plug it into the back of the box, but must connect it via a USB extender cable so that I can get line of sight. You'd think that given the fact that the Mini already has an IR port for front row, the remote could use that, but you'd be mistaken. You also think that manufacturers of a TV remote specifically for use with a line of computers that all have built-in Bluetooth might consider that option. Again, this would be foolish of you.
Connecting up the screen
The Mini has DVI out, so naturally I assumed I should use an HDMI-DVI connector for optimum quality. Wrong! Not only does the Mac not offer any screen resolutions that even approximate the TV's native resolution, but when I turn off the TV when the HDMI cabled is connected, the Mac promptly crashes.
I tried a DVI-Composite-Scart setup, which works but it's not HD, and it wasn't ideal anyway. By default the screen appeared with a thick black border around it. The Mac helpfully offers an overscan option which draws the picture bigger to avoid this - it overcompensates though and so the dock and menu bars are barely visible. This occurs with all resolutions I tried.
I instead bought a VGA cable and used the DVI-VGA adaptor that ships with the Mini. This seems to work much better, but bizarrely the Toshiba's TV inputs only support 3:4 resolutions! At first I thought I was just being stupid, but no, it's right there in the manual!? I mean how is that even possible - did they not notice when building their TV that it has a 16:9 display?
There is an option to stretch the screen out to fit the display width, but naturally this makes everyone look like they've been on a pork pie diet.
Mac OS 10.4
I love Mac OS X, but I wasn't blown away by its helpfulness in this situation. As I mentioned earlier, I was unable to find a ideal resolution for my TV. I run the Mac in 1024x768 resolution, stretched to fit the screen. This works okay as a computer, but when watching TV or DVDs everyone looks fat.
The Mac really needs to bulk out these options a bit with virtual resolutions and arbitrary image scaling or bordering. This would all be trivial to implement at the hardware level of the graphics card, and would make TV configuration much easier. Perhaps this could be achieved with a 3rd party utility? If anybody knows of such a program then please tell me.
Technically part of Mac OS, Front Row is the "liberal arts student" of the media centre world - it is very pretty but... well, a bit thick. As a DVD player or iTunes music player it is competent, but no more.
Obvious features in iTunes are missing, such as the visualiser - I mean come on, if you're playing songs on a full-screen interface is it not likely that you might want to use the visualiser?
The DVD player works well enough, but it would be nice if there was an option to stretch the picture to fit the screen - currently I get black bars at the top and bottom, as it helpfully letterboxes the picture on an already wide screen.
I'm also not convinced by the remote. Sure it's cool, but I often can't tell if pushing "up" will change the volume or perform a menu selection.
Ah, the heart of the matter. In some ways this software is excellent - unfortunately in most of the ways that count its rubbish.
- Version 2.3 (the first one to support a full-screen interface) looks very nice, but the Front Row integration is quirky. Instead of adding an icon to the Front Row circle, it has a separate menu interface that replaces Front Row by default, and you have to navigate a couple of menus to get back to the Front Row interface.
- Export to iPod/PSP function is a nice touch.
- Easy to use and fairly intuitive.
- You can select a program on the Internet and remotely instruct your EyeTV to record them (though this service is provided bya third party web site, and isn't free).
- Jump back/forward buttons. This is very handy when you're fast forwarding through the ads and miss the beginning.
- For some reason there are two TV guides. The built in DVB guide, which apparently doesn't do anything except tell you the channel names, and then a second, 3rd party guide. The 3rd party guide you use depends on what region you're in. In the UK the only option is TVTV. This is free for the first year, but then you have to pay £1.25 per month after that. Okay so this isn't a lot of money, but it's ridiculous considering that every bargain-basement £40 Freeview box on the market offers this functionality for free. Why doesn't EyeTV pick up the free guide broadcast as part of the digital TV service? Beats me.
- Despite quite successfully picking up all channels on the DVD guide, it then randomly fails to add some of them to the TVTV guide, and then when you figure out how to add them manually (which is amazingly hard) it forgets them again the next time you quit.
- When previewing channels in the guide it doesn't show you the current channel you are watching in a smaller window. Instead the guide occupies the whole screen. Again, even the cheapest set-top boxes on the market can do better than this.
- If you set a program to record, then pause it, when it finishes recording it suddenly jumps to real time and doesn't let you rewind back to where you were. Instead you must go and select the recorded program from the interface, play it, and then manually fast forward to the point you had got to.
- If you are watching something on one channel and a scheduled programme starts on another channel it will flip channels and start recording without warning. No confirmation dialog to say that the channel is about to change - nothing. If the program you were watching had been paused, the buffer is cleared when the channel, so there's no way to return to where you were, even if you cancel the recording.
- If a program starts recording and you want to cancel it, there's no way to do this with the remote. If you try to change channel it flashes up a Mac OS dialog box with the buttons "continue" (default) and "stop". Pressing the okay button on the remote selects continue, but no button maps to "stop" - you must use the mouse to click it. You can't even press escape on the keyboard because "stop" isn't the "cancel" button for the dialog, you can close it with Command-D however (the "don't save" shortcut). This applies even if you started the recording by pressing the red record button on the remote. Neither pressing this button again nor pressing stop will do anything to help - you must go into the interface and select stop recording and then click OK.
- You can set a period to wait before and after a program when recording so that you don't miss the beginning if it starts early. EyeTV isn't smart enough to skip this if another scheduled program is starting immediately after on another channel (or even the same channel) - instead you will miss the beginning or end of one of them.
- On occasion EyeTV has randomly stopped recording a program half way through, or 5 seconds in. Still not sure why.
EyeTV crashes. A lot. Here's a few things that can make it crash:
- Changing channel manually
- Changing channel automatically
- Beginning a recording
- Finishing a recording
- Being left running for a few hours
- The day has a "Y" in it
- Rewinding (this is the worst - if you rewind for more than a few seconds it usually crashes)
Needless to say that because of this it is always a gamble trusting it to record anything. The crashes are hard crashes by the way - either the whole machine freezes, or EyeTV gets stuck in a loop that uses 100% of the CPU and prevents any user interaction other than force-restarting. This is on a dual core processor too remember, so that's some pretty slick engineering if they can freeze both CPUs at once.
- EyeTV takes over Front Row. There's no way to change this behaviour and it means that you must navigate through two menus to get to the normal Apple Front Row. Watching a DVD becomes a complex operation involving two remote controls, and at least five levels of menus.
- You can't schedule recordings from within the full screen interface.
UPDATE: a new version of EyeTV has been released since that adds the facility to record. It's ugly as sin (presumably as look and feel dispute with Apple forced them to drop the front-row like interface) and seems to be a lot less stable (now crashes every hour), with no significant enhancements. I've reverted to 2.3.
UPDATE: The latest releases seems a lot more stable, and you can now schedule recordings from within the full-screen interface. They still can't seem to figure out how to let you stop a recording without showing a modal dialog though. The remote seems like it wants to be able to close the dialog, I can select the cancel button for example, but for some reason no button on the remote is configured to actually press it. I'm now using 2.4. I still don't like it.
Okay, so it's not exactly media centre equipment, but I thought I'd take the Mini's much-maligned Intel GMA-950 graphics for a spin. Technically the Mini doesn't meet Quake's minimum hardware requirements, but don't believe what they tell you - Quake 4 runs just fine on the Mini.
You'll need to set the GFX options down to pretty much their minimum settings, and it can be choppy in places, but I was able to play through the whole game on my setup, and I found it very enjoyable.
The only downside was that the tap-to-click function on my trackpad caused me to regularly unload my shotgun into the nearest elevator switch unexpectedly, and the scroll bar on the trackpad would make me randomly aim at the ceiling in the middle of a gunfight. But neither of these would have been an issue with a standard keyboard and mouse setup.
The Mac Mini is a very nice little computer and I heartily recommend it to anyone (except possibly a hardcore gamer).
The Migilia is a decent little TV tuner if you've got access to an external aerial. The Elgato diversity/Hauppauge Nova-TD (see below) is a much better option though.
The EyeTV software is very slick and feature rich. If you are thinking of using it to replace a professional DVR, then don't. The same money will buy you the same feature set on a device that will have had a lot more thought put into its interface by people who actually watch TV, and don't just spend all day writing software. I can only conclude that no such people work at Elgato.
The Toshiba TV is not great, and is certainly not media centre friendly. If I were buying a TV again, I'd give it a miss.
The Way Forward
The frustrations of constantly being bombarded by modal dialog boxes when trying to channel surf eventually got to me. I decided to buy a dual tuner to replace the Miglia, the idea being that I could be recording one program while channel surfing on the other tuner.
Wary of throwing too much good money after bad, and having heard that Windows Media Center might be the better alternative, I decided to buy a PC-compatible tuner. I opted for the Hauppauge Nova-TD USB stick. Hardware-wise this is in fact the exact same device as the EyeTV diversity, only about £20 cheaper. Of course it doesn't ship with the EyeTV software, but then I've already got that left over from the Miglia.
It works perfectly with EyeTV. It was recognised instantly, with no new drivers required.
For reasons best know to the hardware engineers, to use the dual tuner, the device must be connected to two RF aerial connectors, rather than simply allowing both tuners to key off one input. This proved too much for the ramshackle array of aerial splitters I had rigged up, so I bought a multi-output aerial booster from Amazon.
Unfortunately, once again EyeTV proved a let-down. After much poking and prodding, it eventually agreed that the device was a dual tuner. The problem is that it's not exactly fluid about selecting which tuner to use for a given situation. If, for example, I am watching something and a program I want to record starts on another channel, it seems to be smart enough to use the other tuner instead of switching channels on me. But if I'm watching a program as it is being recorded, and then try to switch channels, instead of switching automatically to the other idle tuner, it flashes up my favourite modal dialog again.
And so it goes on. It doesn't seem to crash any more, but just recently it has started randomly failing to record certain programmes, even though the timings are all set correctly. I've had enough.
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